Wagner Controversy: Opera Cancels Holocaust Staging of 'Tannhäuser'

A staging of Richard Wagner's "Tannhäuser" -- set during the Holocaust and including a gas chamber and a shooting scene -- shocked audience members so badly that some had to be given medical attention. The theater has now cancelled the production out of fear it will damage its artistic reputation.

The controversial staging of Wagner's "Tannhäuser" in Düsseldorf has been described as "tasteless" by a Jewish community leader. Zoom
DPA

The controversial staging of Wagner's "Tannhäuser" in Düsseldorf has been described as "tasteless" by a Jewish community leader.

Düsseldorf's Deutsche Oper am Rhein opera house announced late Wednesday it was cancelling a highly controversial staging of Richard Wagner's "Tannhäuser" after outraging audiences at its premier on Saturday.

Director Burkhard Kosminski set the production in the time of the Nazi regime in an effort to address the controversial but popular composer's anti-Semitism and the later influence he would have on Nazi ideology. The staging depicted the character Tannhäuser as a Nazi war criminal and it even included a gas chamber on stage.

In a statement released on Thursday, the Deutsche Oper am Rhein said its managers had been conscious ahead of the premier that the production would be controversial. "We are reacting with the utmost concern to the fact that a few scenes, particularly one involving a very realistic depiction of a shooting scene, appears to have created such a strong stress for numerous visitors, both psychological and physical, that they had to receive medical attention afterwards."

The theater said that after "intensive discussions," director Kosminski, also a well-known German actor, refused to tone down his staging and that the opera must respect his artistic freedom, also for "legal reasons".

"After considering all the arguments, we have come to the conclusion that we cannot justify such an extreme impact of our artistic work," the statement read. The controversy is the biggest ever faced by the Düsseldorf opera house, which is not traditionally known for productions that have caused outrage.

Kosminski said he was "shocked" by the theater's decision and that he had simply been informed by the opera's management. "I presented my plan 10 months ago and explained what I wanted to do," he told the Westdeutsche Zeitung newspaper. "I also established a great deal of transparency during rehearsals. I am not a scandalous director and I have already staged more than 50 productions."

Gas Chambers and a Brutal Shooting Scene

Among the staging's most shocking scenes is a sequence during the famous "Tannhäuser" overture, in which nude actors are lowered to the floor on a cross made of glass cubes that are slowly filled with fog to represent the gas chambers. The Venusberg, the site of hedonistic love in Wagner's opera, becomes the site of a brutal shooting scene. Venus, who is decked out in a Nazi uniform, and her SS henchmen murder a family and then force Tannhäuser to kill as well.

With that kind of sensitive material, it didn't take long for the booing to begin. The theater reported that some guests also required medical attention. Following the outrage of theater-goers and the public, Rheinoper officials moved four days after the premier to suspend the staging. The opera will continue, but only with the orchestra and the singers and none of the elaborate props.

There had been no public demands to stop the production, but the theater decided to do so anyway. The leader of the Düsseldorf Jewish community, Michael Szentei-Heise described the production as "tasteless," but said he did not see the need to stop it, according to German news agency DPA. Wagner may have been a "fervent anti-Semite," but he didn't have anything to do with the Holocaust, he said.

Meanwhile, the Central Council of Jews in Germany said it had taken note of the controversial production but did not issue any comment.

dsl -- with wires

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